Sydney Morning Herald Column

Just Not Australian

Published December 8, 2020
Hodar Afshar, 'Dog's Breakfast' (2011)

Just Not Australian made its debut at Artspace early last year but will be touring ten regional galleries in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia until October, 2022. I caught the show at the Wollongong Art Gallery where it may be seen over the holiday period. The longevity of the tour suggests this is an exhibition that strikes a chord with galleries and presumably with audiences.

Presented as a satirical critique of the kind of reflexive, brainless nationalism that has reasserted itself in today’s political landscape, the show includes 19 artists, or groups of artists, who look at issues such as racism and xenophobia, but also at the kind of shared experiences that shape our sense of identity.

Liam Benson, ‘Red Flag’ (2017)

There’s a case to be made for patriotism and love of one’s country, but nationalism is always a blight. The nation is a political entity, and nationalists have difficulty drawing a line between geography and ideology. The worship of the state is the scariest of pseudo-religions, leading to a mob mentality. Aldous Huxley once wrote that part of nationalism’s appeal is that it allows men and women to savour “even at second hand the joys of criminality”.

Anyone who believes “unAustralian” is the worst form of abuse might ask themselves what exactly are the defining features of an Australian today? Cut away the myths and clichés and it can only be seen as a work-in-progress.

Soda Jerk, ‘Terror Nullius’. Mad Max meets Pathetic Pauline

The centrepiece of Just Not Australian is Soda Jerk’s 2018 film, Terror Nullius: A Political Revenge Fable in Three Acts, which may be sampled at a free screening at 7 pm on 9 December, at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre. This 55-minute movie has form. It was commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image with a grant of $100,000 from the Ian Potter Foundation. But when the patrons saw the final product they hastened to dissociate themselves. The artists, Dan and Dominque Angeloro, said representatives of the trust accused the film of being “unAustralian”.

This peculiar reaction on behalf of the funding body has given Terror Nullius that touch of notoreity all avant-garde artists crave. More importantly it’s a devastating, hilarious work of satire that always gets an amazing reception. The Angeloro sisters have trawled back over the history of Australian cinema and television, creating a mash-up of word and image that turns the tables on one local icon after another. Real figures and speeches are skilfully inserted into sequences from famous Australian movies, as are speeches by John Howard, Gina Rinehart and others.

Tony Albert, exotic OTHER’ (2009/2018)

In researching this film the artists said how surprised they were to watch Crocodile Dundee (1986) again and feel it was offensive rather than comical. I confess I’ve had the same experience. For the most part, Mick Dundee hasn’t worn well. Instead of a loveable rogue he now looks like a narrow-minded, patronising, sexist boor. I don’t think this is because I’ve become more politically correct since I first saw the film. It really is a different world nowadays,  although not necessarily a better one.

The rise of political populism, so closely bound up with the viral dissemination of social media, has seen all kinds of narrow views achieve mainstream status. Donald Trump may have set the worldwide agenda but he is a symptom, not the cause.

It’s John Howard, just not as we know him.. Vincent Namatjira does the Prime Ministers

Most of the artists in Just Not Australian are acutely aware of the simmering xenophobia that lurks in Australian society. What’s impressive about this exhibition is that prejudice has been countered with humour. Abdul Abdullah has appropriated the popular anti-immigration bumper sticker, Fuck Off We’re Full, and displayed it on a light box against a field of changing colours. It looks like an unusually aggressive sign from the front of a restaurant or hotel. Hoda Afshar has a  photo of a man and a woman dressed in elaborate middle eastern costumes, looking distractedly at a table laden with slices of white bread daubed in Vegemite.

Tony Albert’s wall piece, Other (2008), spells out the work’s title in large letters made from items of Aboriginal kitsch once sold in gift shops. We’ve forgotten how common it was to snuff out a cigarette in a ashtray decorated with an ornamental Aborigine. Those were the days, of course, before the natives became restless and began demanding to be treated like human beings.

Among the most striking images in the show are Vincent Namatjira’s portraits of Australian Prime Ministers, from Bob Hawke to Malcolm Turnbull. You might have to look twice to recognise any of the honourable members but the artist has captured each of them in a sublimely happy moment. They grin and beam at us, with flashing smiles and parted teeth, as if they’re sharing a marvellous joke. All the dignity and emnity of politics is forgotten in this disarming picture of our leaders looking as happy as toddlers in the sand-pit.

Joan Ross, from ‘I Give You a Mountain’ (2019)

In I Give You a Mountain Joan Ross has produced an animated video that looks back to colonial times with all the gravitas of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, while Karla Dickens has made a simple, lyrical film that compares a young queen of the bush to the youthful Queen Elizabeth, during her Royal visits.

In all the irreverent, occasionally scabrous art on display, there is a remarkable lack of anger and bitterness. In some instances, as in works by Jon Campbell and Nell, the emphasis is on the way we bond over popular culture and shared memories of growing up in the towns and suburbs. Campbell has never quite shaken off his upbringing in Melbourne’s west. He returns nostalgically to these more innocent days in fragmentary pieces that celebrate the Aussie vernacular and good times spent with his mates. Yet there’s also a hint that maybe it was a bit more complicated than he’d like to admit.

Nell’s homage to AC/DC

Nell’s preoccupations are altogether more eccentric, combining a devotion to Buddhism with a passion for the band, AC/DC. She is exhibiting robes emblazoned with pictures of the group and various insignia, as if they were aids to meditation instead of incentives to bang one’s head on the wall. I don’t doubt Nell’s sincerity but for me the reinvigorated cult of AC/DC remains as much a mystery as the contemporary tendency to view John Howard as a visionary leader.

The only way to explain such gilded views of the past is to glance at the shortcomings of the present. Alongside much of the music one hears today AC/DC grows in stature. Likewise, John Howard begins to look magisterial when we consider the current occupant of the Lodge, who has a habit of declaring the things he doesn’t like “unAustralian”. Apparently pandemic panic buying is the latest “unAustralian” activity. Judging by this week’s news cycle I wouldn’t be surprised if he soon accuses the Chinese of being “unAustralian”. That’ll show ‘em.


Just Not Australian

Wollongong Art Gallery, 21 November, 2020 – 7 February, 2021

Debut: Artspace, 18 January – 28 April, 2019

 Annotation 2020-11-29 153121.png


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December, 2020